Difficult conversations, HiPPOs and giving feedback well: brave-kind, open honesty

Not to avoid or to bypass – not to see them as difficult, but as honest, open conversations – is both brave and kind, and can bring both trust and improvement.

‘Challenging colleagues directly is the aspect of my job which I find hardest, and probably always will.’ Deputy Headteacher Jonathan Mountstevens

‘Our organisations, our careers, our lives, succeed or fail one conversation at a time.’ Susan Scott.

When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.’ Thomas Sowell

‘Tell the truth, with love’. Ephesians.

‘Share what’s hardest to share; surface areas of disagreement; spend lavishly on the time and energy taken to get in sync, because it’s the best investment you’ll make. Don’t leave important conflicts unresolved. Know how to disagree well.’ Ray Dalio

‘A group of people who cannot be honest with each other cannot create work of high quality.’ Kat Howard and Claire Hill

‘How can leaders develop trusting relationships while facing up to difficulties in their school and helping staff to do the same? Conversations are difficult when they have the potential to threaten relationships by triggering discomfort and defensiveness.’ Viviane Robinson


How can we best have difficult conversations with our colleagues? How can we improve how we give our team-members feedback? 

Many feel they cannot raise difficult issues with their colleagues. We tend to avoid conflict. We are reluctant to surface disagreements. We feel too strapped for time to get in sync. Research over 30 years from Viviane Robinson suggests those of us in schools delay or avoid action when facing up to complex people problems. We tend to hide our true thinking and not disclose it. There seems to be a tension between openness and respectfulness.

The best school leaders I’ve worked with give great feedback and encourage honesty. They tell the truth as they see it and invite you to share the truth as you see it. 

One way to approach a difficulty – for example, when someone is late to a one-on-one with you, or when someone doesn’t complete something you’d agreed – is to use COIN.

COIN is a four-step approach for how to give feedback – not about teaching or lessons, but further upstream, about school leadership and teamwork, from Anna Carroll, executive coach and psychologist. Here’s what COIN stands for.

Context: check now or when’s a good time for feedback. thank them for their time. 

Observation: share the specific facts you’ve noticed.

Impact: share the impact on others, or the missed opportunity for positive impact from doing things differently. Ask if that makes sense, and for their thoughts.

Next steps: Plan what’s best to do next together. thank them for their openness or time.

Example 1: someone isn’t on time

Context: ‘is now a good time for some feedback? … Thanks for your time, I appreciate it!’

Observation: ‘One thing I’ve noticed is that the last few times, you haven’t arrived on time.’

Impact: ‘The positive impact of being on time or early is that it shows people we truly value their time. The unintended impact of not being on time is that people think we don’t really value their time as much as ours. Does that make sense? What am I missing?’ …

Next steps: ‘What could you do going forward?’ … ‘How can I best support?’ … ‘What are the best next steps?’


Example 2: someone hasn’t followed up or completed an agreed action

Context: ‘is now a good time for some feedback? … Thanks for your time, I appreciate it!’

Observation: ‘One thing I noticed is that the action we agreed wasn’t completed.’

Impact: ‘The positive impact of follow up is that it builds trust, momentum and progress. The unintended impact of not following up fully is that people start to lose trust in us. Does that make sense? What am I missing?’ …

Next steps: ‘What could you do going forward?’ … ‘How can I best support?’ … ‘What are the best next steps?’  


Example 3: someone is spending too much time on one thing at the expense of other higher priorities

Context: ‘is now a good time for some feedback? … Thanks for your time, I appreciate it!’

Observation: ‘One thing I noticed is that time is taken up on X when we’ve said A, B and C are our top priorities.’

Impact: ‘The positive impact of prioritising what matters most is that we achieve more. The unintended impact of not prioritising well is that we won’t achieve what we most need to. Does that makes sense? What am I missing?’ …

Next steps: ‘What could you do going forward?’ … ‘How can I best support?’ … ‘What are the best next steps?’ 


Example Template: Giving feedback with COIN

Context: ‘is now a good time for some feedback? … Thanks for your time, I appreciate it!’

Observation: ‘One thing I noticed is that _____________________________________.’

Impact: ‘The positive impact of ___________ is that _________. The unintended impact of not _________ is that ________________. Does that make sense? What am I missing?’ …

Next steps: ‘What could you do going forward?’… ‘How can I best support?’ … ‘What are the best next steps?’ 

Why giving feedback with COIN (and receiving it with RESET) helps: 20 reasons

  1. Disagreements occur. Colleagues don’t always agree all the time. 
  2. Misunderstandings occur. Colleagues don’t always understand each other all the time.
  3. Misalignments occur. Team members aren’t always in sync on pivotal beliefs and strategies.
  4. Mistakes happen. People don’t always see the missed opportunity.
  5. Feelings are fierce. We all feel strong emotions sometimes. Suppressing them isn’t healthy.
  6. Patterns recur. We all have habits that aren’t optimal. 
  7. Mismatches happen. We all have moments where our actions don’t match what we truly value.
  8. Conflicts occur. Colleagues sometimes argue or clash.
  9. Avoidance is costly. It costs us in time, morale, underperformance, underachievement, stress and missed opportunities. Avoiding issues leads to further, deeper problems later.
  10. Structure is helpful. It can reduce cognitive overload, provide transparency, increase predictability, normalise giving and receiving feedback and quell challenging emotions. 
  11. Perspective is helpful. It can help us see a new view of our unintended impacts on others, empathise better and build better trust and relationships.
  12. Honesty is helpful. It can help us improve, develop and learn. Denying us honesty and feedback denies us the chance to improve and deprives us of knowing what we need to fix.
  13. Dialogue is helpful. Dialogue can resolve difficulties, build trust, and help agree shared ways forward.
  14. Frequency reduces stakes. The less often “difficult” conversations happen, the more threatening and pressurising they feel; the more honest, open conversations happen, the lower the stakes, the more normal they feel.
  15. Beliefs matter. Beliefs influence actions, and where there is belief clash on fundamental premises, two-way learning about beliefs is required to agree shared ways forward.
  16. Shared understanding is helpful for commitment to and ownership of improvements. 
  17. Mnemonics are memorable. Chunking four steps down into one familiar word, coin, with first-letter cues from the acrostic, makes it easier to remember each step.

In short, the three deepest reasons for combining giving and seeking feedback are:

1. to solve problems

2. to build knowledge 

3. to build trust 

When is best?

How do we decide when and whether to have an honest, open conversation, and when not to?

When required: the moments an honest, open conversation is needed 

1. Tension: When you sense a tension that’s affecting relationships or trust

2. Issue: When you want to address an issue that’s affecting work or positive impact

3. Avoidance: When you realise that avoiding or not having a conversation is likely to be problematic for things down the line in future.

How: 5 tactics for before, during and after

  1. Prepare before – choose what to say; anticipate objections
  2. Clarify and check to start – bring clarity; be honest, direct and forthright
  3. Ask and listen during – build trust; listen well; show empathy and understanding 
  4. Plan and summarise to end – help them plan, prioritise and act on it by asking them to summarise their priority going forward
  5. Follow up after – encourage and reinforce how they’re acting on the feedback

Vivian Robinson suggests open-to-learning conversations as ways out of the dilemma of avoiding weakly or confronting harshly. To adapt her thinking:

Open because each person’s views are expressed openly. And because ‘openness increases the chance of detecting and correcting faulty assumptions about each other, the challenge and what to do’. 

Without validity or respect, people won’t feel heard, and we will not get the feedback or the honesty we need.

Without others’ commitment and ownership, we will not see the improvements we’d like. 

Example: pupils’ books in a teachers’ class are a total mess.

The advantage of genuine listening, openness and responsiveness is that the colleague feels respected and heard and not threatened or trapped without recourse.

What if… top 5 pitfalls, top 5 preemptions

Don’t criticise colleagues without giving them the chance to act on that criticism: tell them, not someone else without them knowing.

Five limitations of COIN for honest, open conversations 

  1. Challenge: honest challenge requires knowledge, skill, understanding and practice – otherwise we choose the wrong issue to raise, or raise it ineffectively
  2. Depth: it often requires deeper listening, asking, understanding and dialogue to get to root causes, environmental factors within our control or influence, and deeper underlying habits or limiting beliefs.
  3. Openness: it requires courage, emotional vulnerability and bravery, to overcome fears of others’ misperceptions and (mis)judgements in high-pressure, high-threat situations. 
  4. Time: it requires time to practise, prepare for and invest in, when time is scarce.
  5. Expertise: highly-valued feedback is well-chosen, expert feedback. Inexpert feedback, based on flimsy grounds, can be unhelpful or even harmful.

Don’t underestimate the role knowledge plays in deciding about and giving effective feedback

Our thinking depends on what we know. Honesty helps most if you know what’s best to be honest about, and what improvements or alternatives to suggest. This requires deep domain-specific, context-specific knowledge in subject curricula/subject teaching, behavioural habits or staff culture, which is often lacking for us in schools. Knowledge is like oxygen: vital but invisible. Knowledge matters. No quick fixes! 

Some of the best feedback is the most upstream feedback: it affects what’s downstream

The high cost of fear 

The culture in which feedback conversations take place is vital. 

A culture of fear, blame, condemnation and vilification is totally unconducive to honesty.

When leaders complain about staff ‘complaining’, ‘moaning’, or ‘pushback’ it shuts down openness.

People feel reluctant to say what they think or feel for fear of retribution, hostility or ostracism. 

Staff feel afraid to share their thoughts and feelings for fear of being judged.

Fears cost us. Suppression of challenge and honesty costs us.

People must feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings, to take risks, to admit and learn from mistakes, struggles, challenges, differences, divergences, difficulties, and to be vulnerable without risk of ridicule, rejection or being dismissed.

In all organisations, no matter how hard we try, the truth doesn’t flow to the top well. In schools, which tend to be hierarchical, truth especially has a hard time of flowing upwards. The best school leaders recognise this and seek out, respond to and act on feedback really well, leading by example.

‘Treat competing views not as resistance or obstacles to be overcome, but as opportunities to learn about the quality of their own thinking and problem-solving’.

Vivian Robinson

Brave-kind: 10 ways to create an open culture of courageous, considerate honesty

To help cultivate a safe, open culture, here are 5 things we can do as individuals and 5 things we can do as school leaders:


1. Duty to dissent: speak up when necessary – don’t be afraid to raise issues, differences or share feedback, even when it’s difficult. Dissent and diverse perspectives are necessary for good decision-making.

2. Challenge HiPPOs – challenge the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion to reduce the tendency for decision-making to be dominated by the person with the highest authority, status or pay, or control over others’ pay, progression, opportunities and experiences, regardless of whether their opinion is the most valid.

3. Practise empathic listening: summarise others’ feelings and views to their satisfaction, from within their frame of reference; keep checking our evolving understanding: ‘so your instinct is…’ ‘If I’ve understood, what you’re feeling is…’  ‘I hear you. I think! What you’re saying is…’ ‘So that I fully understand your perspective, let me summarise your take…’ 

4. Understand believability: some opinions are more credible than others – experts with track records in the domain are more believable than non-experts without a track record of success. Ask ‘what would it take to change your mind on this?’ 

5. Disagree and commit: voice disagreements and objections fully, but fully support a decision once made to move forward as a team, where time is short and unanimity or consensus can’t be reached, or when a decision needs to be made fast to avoid delay or missed opportunities, or when a decision is low-impact, low-risk and/or reversible. ‘Time’s short; I’m happy to disagree and commit fully together on this.’

School leaders

1. Lead by example in taking feedback well: make one or more of the 5 RESET responses the default every time; set the standard in seeking feedback well: invite fearless upward honesty. 

2. Share mistakes, struggles, problems and challenges: normalise it, remove the heat, make it less personal, less shameful, less hidden, more normal.

3. Lead CPD and intensive training on how to give and take feedback with COIN & RESET; give time to practice deliberately and intensively; share resources in advance and after for follow-up revisiting.

4. Celebrate successes: champion moments of honesty, challenge and rethinking from new vantage points and how they helped. 

5. Cultivate staff beliefs in feedback, by overcommunicating the vital importance of honesty, openness, sharing not depriving, not leaving things unresolved, blind spots, receiving it well and not being defensive.

Five Takeaways – *what, why, how and when* to use COIN to give feedback

*What*: COIN is 4 steps to giving feedback – context, observation, impact, next steps.

*Why*: giving feedback well can build knowledge, trust and problem-solving capacity. 

*How*: prepare, share, follow up.

*When*: tension in a relationship, an issue with a task/activity, or avoidance.

*If* things go wrong: ask great questions, listen, hear their views and feelings, seek to understand.


Give great feedback, well and often. Lead by example. Take it well. Set the standard.

Speak up. Be honest, direct and forthright. No need to sugarcoat. 

Be considerate: ask lots. Summarise their view. Be open to learning. Calm, open dialogue. 

Don’t ignore, but rather talk about the elephant in the room.

Don’t deny your colleagues the chance to improve.

Don’t deprive them of feedback.

Challenge HiPPOs.

No sacred cows.

No eggshells.

Try out COIN.

Be brave-kind.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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